Bird hunting on land and water can be hazardous

'Nothing will kill a hunting trip quicker than going to the emergency room with a heart attack.'

By: Pat Miller .

Dr. Skogerboe while bird hunting
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Fall is the perfect time to be outdoors toting a shotgun while bird hunting.

From pheasants flushing on a Badlands hillside to mallards sailing into a decoy spread, people who love bird hunting have many options during this time of the year. But every option is accompanied by some hazards.

Dr. Lacey Olson has been chasing pheasants near Chamberlain, South Dakota, since her childhood days. Now a physician at Sanford Health in her hometown, Dr. Olson and her family built a house on the family farm southeast of Chamberlain about five years ago. On opening day of the pheasant season, she will join her family members and friends working the hills, valleys and sloughs looking for birds.

“I personally do not hunt, or at least I do not carry a gun, which essentially makes me the ‘bird dog’,” Dr. Olson said. “As long as I have been able to walk, I have been walking the fields and kicking up birds. Opening weekend of pheasant season is practically a holiday at our house. We have hunters from out of state who have been coming for three generations and are considered good family friends.”

Dr. Olson and her companions know their bird hunting terrain and how exhausting a weekend hiking through it can be. Her medical background also has taught her the physical standards of pheasant hunting.

“If you get winded going up a flight of stairs, don’t climb the big hill,” Dr. Olson said. “There is no way of saying this nicely, but hunters should look at themselves. If you are the guy who is 100 or 150 pounds overweight, and you don’t do any workouts all week, you shouldn’t be getting this type of cardio workout on opening day because it can lead to a heart attack.

“Nothing will kill a hunting trip quicker than going to the emergency room with a heart attack.”

Successful group pheasant hunting requires planning, execution of the plan and proper positioning. Pushing the birds to blockers stationed at the end of the drive can be a very effective method of flushing pheasants within the range of the hunters and the blocking position can be the perfect spot for the hunter who can’t remember the last time he or she was at the gym.

“Be realistic about your physical abilities. If you don’t think you are healthy enough to walk very far, be the blocker,” Dr. Olson said. “Every drive needs blockers.”

‘Tough guy’ mentality

Unfortunately, some hunters overestimate their potential.

“I think that is because of the ‘tough guy’ mentality some hunters have,” Dr. Olson said. “We see all types of injuries because of that mentality, from someone stepping into a badger hole that he didn’t see to hunters foolishly jumping off tailgates.

“Thankfully, gun-related hunting accidents are not the bulk of what we see. Most of the time the injuries involve musculoskeletal and cardiac issues. And there always is a laceration or two from cleaning the birds,” Dr. Olson added.

Those types of injuries usually can be easily dealt with in the field or in the emergency room. A heart attack, however, can be more problematic.

“If someone is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately, load the hunter into the truck and get to the hospital,” Dr. Olson said. “But the most important thing is that people should recognize their physical abilities and their physical disabilities.”

Waterfowl hunting hazards

Dr. Neil Skogerboe, a retired Sanford Health doctor, has watched the sun climb over the cattails and decoys thousands of times and has learned how to appreciate every individual sunrise.

“One of the draws of duck hunting is the magnificence of dawn in the swamp,” he said. The sights and the sounds of an early morning watching the eagles, the fox and the mink along the shore, and then getting strafed by ducks whizzing past in the darkness, is something special. If you are a duck hunter, you know what I mean.”

In 1964, Dr. Skogerboe and his cousin, Rolf Skogerboe, became bird hunting buddies and roamed the shorelines of the potholes near Karlstad, Minnesota. When he was 11 years old, his uncle, Norris, gave Dr. Skogerboe his first shotgun and he has been chasing ducks and geese ever since.

Dr. Skogerboe’s career journey took him to Bemidji, Minnesota, and in 1980 he and fellow Bemidji physicians Dr. Bruce Wilson (surgery), Dr. Gary Winkler (family practice) and Dr. Jim Thompson (ophthalmology) formed a bird hunting party that made an annual trip to a waterfowl staging area 150 miles northwest of Winnipeg, Canada.

Dr. Skogerboe, who retired as a family medicine physician at Sanford Bemidji three years ago, also makes an annual trek to potholes 25 miles northwest of Devils Lake, North Dakota, where mallards, pintails, teal, gadwalls and a few other puddle duck species mingle with the occasional diving duck.

Hypothermia danger

There are times, however, especially when bird hunting the huge water in Canada, when spending the day at camp is a better option than heading to the duck blind.

“In Canada, you often have to cover as many as 9 miles of open water to get to your spot,” Dr. Skogerboe said. “And there are times when that just isn’t safe.”

Decoys, guns and other necessities for the duck hunt, add extra pounds to a small boat, and when water crashes over the side on a frigid morning, ice also can add to that weight. The combination of water, ice and below-freezing temperatures is the perfect recipe for hypothermia.

“The greatest health hazard for a waterfowl hunter is hypothermia,” Dr. Skogerboe said, “especially if you get wet.”

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses more heat than it can naturally create. Under normal conditions, the body temperature is around 98.6 degrees. Hypothermia, however, lowers the body temperature and if it reaches 95 degrees, the internal organs and nervous system can be impacted.

“If you get to the point where you have uncontrollable shivers, and then some confusion or slurred speech, you have to deal with hypothermia right away,” Dr. Skogerboe said. “You have to find a source of heat!”

An extra set of warm clothes, wrapped in a watertight bag, can literally be a lifesaver. Warm clothes, combined with a campfire can effectively reverse the dangers of hypothermia.

“It’s amazing what a can of charcoal lighter fluid can do with wet wood,” Dr. Skogerboe said. “You should always have a can of lighter fluid and extra clothes with your duck hunting equipment.”

Physical shape

Dr. Skogerboe also tries to keep himself in good physical condition. A day slogging through the mud, hauling decoys, pushing boats and weaving through marsh grass can take a toll.

“Sliding through the muck is very hard work,” Dr. Skogerboe said. “You have to be in physical condition to do that but, more importantly, you have to know when to quit. You have to pay attention to the degree of exhaustion.”

Knowing your personal limitations is vital to maintaining your health while waterfowl hunting. And those limitations can change on a yearly basis. What you could accomplish last year, you may not be able to do this season.

“You have to know what you can do and don’t risk doing too much,” Dr. Skogerboe said. “If you over-exert, especially if you have chronic lung disease, you could have your body shift to an aerobic metabolism situation (where your body is making energy without enough oxygen). If you try to work past capacity, you could be in trouble, so know when to back off and when to take a rest.”

Working past capacity could also lead to a heart attack or a lack of concentration. And the latter could result in a fall, a sprained ankle or a broken bone.

“It’s always good to know how to fashion a splint or wrap a knee in an emergency,” said Dr. Skogerboe, whose personal waterfowl hunting survival kit includes antibiotics, sutures, Novocain, elastic wraps, cold sore medicine, tape, bandages, iodine and sunscreen. “If you wrap a knee, start at the foot and be careful not to wrap it too tightly.

“Dehydration can also be an issue, especially if you are forced to camp overnight,” Dr. Skogerboe continued. “If you didn’t bring enough water, and are forced to drink from the lake, don’t be afraid to. That is better than not drinking and getting into more trouble.”

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